Patricia Bergin
Patricia Bergin (Image: Patricia Bergin)

When it comes to retired judges making an impact conducting special inquiries, the Crown Resorts inquiry lead Justice Patricia Bergin will go down as one of the best.

After first carving up the NSW RSL in 2018 for appalling and corrupt practices, she was called upon by the normally ineffective and under-resourced Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority of NSW to conduct a special inquiry into the suitability of James Packer’s Crown Resorts to operate its new Sydney casino.

After more than 50 days of swashbuckling hearings, Bergin has outdone the likes of banking royal commissioner Kenneth Hayne by actually following through with a series of searing recommendations.

Where Hayne dropped the ball by stopping short of recommending the Big Four banks structurally separate their funds management and advice divisions, Bergin delivered with some very public executions of high-profile figures such as former AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou — whose evidence was labelled “quite bizarre” — and current Crown Resorts CEO Ken Barton, both of whom should be out the door in a matter of days.

In a state long overly influenced by the powerful Packer family, she also backed an unprecedented divestment recommendation for James Packer to reduce his Crown Resorts stake from 36.7% to 10% and provided support for industry-wide reform such as a government-issued cashless gaming card. The latter would eat into the staggering $7 billion a year lost on the NSW poker machines, about 20% of which is estimated to be criminal money-laundering.

Packer’s biographer Damon Kitney tried to look on the bright side for the reclusive billionaire in The Australian today, pointing out his bipolar diagnosis in two countries was accepted as an explanation for his disgraceful threats against businessman Ben Gray in 2015. He also noted that two of Packer’s three Crown board nominees, Guy Jalland and John Poynton, largely escaped censure with only his long-time CFO Michael Johnston being targeted for a forced departure due to his hands-on involvement with much of the governance and risk-management failures identified in the report.

In a state run by a moderate Liberal woman in Gladys Berejikian, it was noteworthy that Bergin made the politically pragmatic recommendation that fellow NSW Liberal moderate Helen Coonan was suitable to continue overseeing the reform program as independent Crown Resorts chair — despite spending close to a decade on the board already.

CEO Ken Barton, another 10-year veteran of Crown, wasn’t so lucky. Coonan will be appointing a new chief executive imminently after Barton was excoriated on multiple fronts — including for the misleading answer he gave to a question I asked at the 2019 Crown AGM about whether Packer was given access to special briefings.

On pages 375 and 376 of the report, Bergin called Barton’s AGM conduct as “quite improper” and his later attempts in the witness box to justify the misleading commentary as “even more inappropriate”.

We now get down to the critical issue of how Crown, Packer and the various state gambling authorities all react to the recommendations.

The casino giant is a terrible communicator at the best of times and the response from the company thus far has been classic Crown. It was radio silence until 10.19am this morning, when we got a one-sentence ASX statement saying that two of the three Packer nominated directors, Guy Jalland and Michael Johnston, had resigned.

There was no explanation as to why, but James Packer released a statement to select media saying he wanted to remove all 3 of his nominees and had achieved this with two resignations and the switch of John Poynton from being a Packer man to an independent by terminating his consultancy deal. This is too cute by half. The Packer statement was silent on the question of his shareholding.

Surprisingly, trading resumed at 10am before any response was provided by the company and the stock initially slumped as much as 8.9% to hit a low of $9.25, before recovering to be 25c lower for the day at 10.30am shortly after the director resignations announcement.

No other Australian billionaire has ever been forced to sell a $1.5 billion stake in a public company on probity or character grounds, but that is precisely what needs to happen.

Bergin is not ordering an immediate fire sale but the state has considerable leverage because it has already delayed Crown from launching its Sydney casino. Only the restaurants and hotel operations at Barangaroo are open.

However, the Packers have a long history of influencing government and James could well fight the recommendations through the usual means of political donations (his mother donated $500,000 to the Liberals shortly before the licence was awarded in 2012-13), media favours through his mates in the Murdoch press, and hiring more influential former politicians.

Rather than Packer selling his shares, an alternative for Crown Resorts would be selling the Barangaroo operation to cross-town rival Star Entertainment or a foreign casino operator.

However, this wouldn’t address the suitability issues of Packer and his various hand-picked directors and executives to continue to control its casino licences in Melbourne and Perth.

As The Age’s all-conquering Nick McKenzie pointed out this morning, the Bergin inquiry has been particularly embarrassing for the Victorian government and its gambling regulator, the Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation, given that most of the alleged money-laundering and high-roller transgressions occurred at its enormous Melbourne operation.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, a former gaming minister who has had numerous direct dealings with Packer over the years, was in the bunker last night declining to comment. He needs to do a lot better than yesterday’s misguided defence of Eddie McGuire’s leadership at Collingwood.

All it would take is a simple statement from Andrews: “I no longer have confidence in James Packer being the Victorian government’s primary partner in our casino joint venture.”

After the embarrassment of being shown up by Bergin, this is the obvious first step to make amends for years of inadequate regulation of Crown Melbourne by the Andrews government.